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Beware of a Holy Heist

A wholesale robbery is being planned.   In front of everyone.  Shockingly, the intended theft is of a Christian denomination’s identity and resources.  And the “authority of the Scripture” is being used to justify the thievery.  It is actually a holy heist, being strategized by so-called “Traditionalists” in The United Methodist Church.  They hope to use the 12-million member denomination’s long-divisive anti-homosexual doctrines to justify driving out non-conforming United Methodists and taking over the whole Church with its vast power and resources. They talk about requiring all ministers and members to conform to United Methodism’s traditional anti-gay biblical beliefs.  But their real aim is conquest and plunder, which is characteristic of those Christians who are fixated on authority and power.  Their resulting intolerance leads them to use biblical beliefs (and in this case The Church’s Book of Discipline also) to gain power over people, rather than authenticate and empower them.

Homosexuality has been haunting The United Methodist Church for decades.  In 1972, after four years of studying the “issue,” the denomination’s ruling General Conference delegates sought to make homosexuality go away.  First, they tried to deny what they were doing by passing a motion that declared: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.”  They reinforced their denial with, “Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights insured, [then comes their bottom line] although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  (The United Methodist Church and Homosexuality,” www.religioustourance.org)

One could drive a truck through the denial, contradiction and paternalism used to camouflage such irrational fear, ignorance and blatant rejection of LGBTQ persons.  “Homosexuals . . . need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment.”  The Church’s ownrejection provides the greatest obstacle to homosexuals “in their struggles for human fulfillment.”

Further, The Church’s paternalism is seen in its assuming the divine-like role of enabling “reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self.”   The word “reconciling” implies that there is something wrong with homosexuals.  It presupposes that homosexuals are estranged from God and need the “spiritual and emotional care” of The Church to get in God’s good graces.  Here The Church sets itself up as the arbitrator of that which is right and good and acceptable to God.

This paternalism is in keeping with United Methodism’s stated mission, which is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Rather than transforming the world, The Church would better serve the world by transforming itselfinto the likeness of the world – that is, for example, by experiencing the world of homosexuals as it is, rather than interpreting it with judgmental and paternalistic biblical beliefs.  The need to “reconcile” homosexuals reveals woeful ignorance of human psychosexual development

LGBTQ United Methodists and their support groups have seen through and renounced such blatant ignorance, denial and hypocrisy. Refusing to be intimidated and forced underground, they increased in strength.

Succeeding General Conferences continued the denomination’s efforts to bury homosexuality and make LGBTQ Christians and their solidarity groups invisible.  In 1976, a majority of delegates voted to “terminate all funding of gay/lesbian support groups with church money.”  In 1984, the delegates ruled that, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (Ibid)

Rather than staying in their place, LGBTQ United Methodists and their supporters grew even stronger, and continued to demand full acceptance at the denomination’s altar.

In 1988, the General Conference resorted to avoidance by employing the tried and true method of studying homosexuality, again, over the next four years.  And as reported, “only heterosexuals were allowed to join the committee.”  In 1996, the General Conference passed the following motion: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (Ibid)

At the 2012 General Conference, in the face of the growing movement for full inclusion in the life of the Church, a majority of some 1000 General Conference delegates voted once again to maintain the doctrinal belief that “homosexual acts are incompatible with Christian teaching.” (See “Methodists Maintain Homosexual Acts Are ‘Incompatible with Christian Teaching’ At General Conference,”By Daniel Burke, Religious News Service, www.huffingtonpost.com, May 4, 2012)  This policy of rejection by a Church whose slogan is “Open Minds.  Open Doors.  Open Hearts.”

But when the 2016 General Conference arrived, the really open hearts, doors and minds of many United Methodist delegates would not be denied.  Obviously contributing to United Methodism’s movement for real inclusion was the US Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.  With such political affirmation spurring a spreading gay liberation movement within The Church, the 2016 General Conference faced a schism over its regressive beliefs about “human sexuality” — specifically “homosexuality.”

Confronted with 100 irreconcilable petitions, the 2016 General Conference delegates asked the Council of Bishops to resolve the endlessly haunting issue of homosexuality.  The bishops responded by creating the representative 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, with the stated aim: “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Disciplineregarding human sexuality,” and present a report with recommendations to a special General Conference [set for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis].  (’AN OFFERING FOR A WAY FORWARD: COUNCIL OF BISHOPS’ STATEMENT/MAY 18,’www.umc.org, May 18, 2016)

The Commission on a Way Forward developed three primary plans to present to a special General Conference this February: The One Church Plan, The Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.

The focus here is on the clerical collar crimebeing plotted by those United Methodists pushing the Traditional Plan. It’s an inside job.  They are claiming to be “most faithful to Scripture,” which teaches “that sexual relationships are to be reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman,” according to Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a leader of the Traditional Plan. (“What’s in the Traditional Plan?,”Good News Magazine, July 19, 2018)

Like any repressive regime, the Traditionalists demand conformity — to their biblical views.  While they call for Church “unity,” they actually mean uniformity.  Their appeal for “faithfulness to Scripture” does not make it any less autocratic.  Biblical beliefs have been used to oppress and subdue non-believers – and so-called “heretical” Christians –throughout the centuries.

For Traditionalists, diversity almost appears to be a form of profanity.  The kind of “unity” they demand leads this writer to question how interfaith-and ecumenical-minded they are in working on common justice issues with people of different faiths.

The Traditionalists’ own authoritarian tendencies are seen in their attempted use of The Bible to dominate people and reject and marginalize those with differing views.  The Traditional Plan is the only Plan of the three that calls for the removal of United Methodists who don’t toe its biblical line. Traditionalists not only believe that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Tellingly, they also believe that those United Methodists who disagree with their particular biblical interpretations are incompatible – and should leave the denomination.

The real issue here is not assumed to be Biblical correctness.  Such demand for correctness is believed to be symptomatic of the insecure emotional makeup of many Traditionalists, whose identity depends on rightness of belief, which legitimizes their authority and control over others and punishment of those who do not conform.  A form of McCarthyism in the name of being “faithful to Scripture.”

Thus the Traditional Plan requires all bishops to sign a loyalty oath, that is, “submit a statement as to whether he or she is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and to hold those under their supervision [ministers] accountable to those standards.” And, “the Council of Bishops would establish a disciplinary committee to respond to bishops who are unwilling to enforce the Discipline,” with non-conforming bishops “placed on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.” (Ibid)

Also, “clergy found guilty by a trial court of performing a same-sex wedding would have a mandatory minimum penalty of one year suspension without pay for the first offense, and removal of clergy credentials for a second offense.”  Further, “Annual conferences that did not agree to enforce the Disciplineor who failed to do so, would as of January 1, 2021, no longer be able to use the United Methodist name or logo and would be unable to give or receive funds through the general church. (Ibid)

The traditionalists call for “enhance[d] accountability for bishops, clergy and annual conferences, to ensure those remaining in The United Methodist Church do indeed live by its standards.” (“What’s in the Traditional Plan?,” Ibid)  In fact, their leading spokesperson states that “enhanced accountability measures are an integral part of the Traditional Plan.” (“Is the Traditional Plan Punitive?,”By Thomas Lambrecht, Good News Magazine, Oct. 22, 2018)

Such “enhanced accountability” appears to be a spiritual form of “enhanced interrogation” – biblically sanitized torture.  Authoritarianism in the name of “being faithful to Scripture.”  This incompatibilityof Traditionalists with other United Methodists over one issue: homosexuality.

But the Traditionalists say their Plan is “gracious,” as they seek to take over The Church and close its doors to everyone else.  Their “graciousness” brings to mind Jesus’ reported warning: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7: 15) The Traditionalists say their Plan “provides a gracious way for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations to leave The United Methodist Church . . . and keep all their property, buildings, assets, and liabilities.” (“What’s in the Traditionalist Plan?,” Ibid)   The Plan even “provides a one-time grant of $200,000 to any annual conference that withdraws in order to assist with transitional expenses.” (“Is the Traditionalist Plan Punitive?,” Ibid)

Beware of such “graciousness.”  The Traditionalists get to keep The Church’s general store.  What’s at stake is put into perspective by the Rev. Dr. Donald Messer,  former United Methodist seminary president and author, who is known for combating world hunger and HIV/AIDS.   He points out: “As for money, imagine alone what the building that the United Methodist Women own across the street from the United Nations is worth.  Or what the Church and Society building beside the Supreme Court is valued.  These are rare properties of enormous worth,” Messer states, and continues, “Across the US and around the world there are properties of values – churches, parsonages, cemeteries, camps, retreat centers, hospitals, colleges.”   (personal communication)

Moreover, the Traditionalists’ attempted biblically-based coup would allow them to gain control of all the denomination’s general boards/agencies (Church and Society, Communications, Global Ministries, Finance and Administration, Higher Education & Ministry, Religion and Race, etc.), determine priorities and set policies.  Quite a theft!

The Traditionalists provide a misleading argument in placing their authority on the fact that their position is “the majority position of the church, reaffirmed by every General Conference since 1972” – and the position “most faithful to Scripture.”  (“What’s in the Traditional Plan,?” Ibid) In other words: “Once the church has set a standard for how we live our lives together in the Body of Christ, it is expected that everyone will live according to that standard, to the best of their ability.” (“Is the Traditional Plan Punitive,?” Ibid)

If the Traditionalists’ discrimination against homosexuals is based on “the authority of Scripture” and therefore a decades-old doctrine of The Church and unchangeable, how do they explain Christians’ finally renouncing their centuries-old, biblically followed, practice of slavery (“Slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” Ephesians 6: 5)?  And Christians’ finally rejecting the ages-long, biblically-based, practice of patriarchy (“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” I Corinthians.13 : 34)?

Obviously, the Scripture on which Traditionalists place their authority is quite selective.  Evidently Jesus wasn’t in the church building when they developed their Plan.  Missing is his teaching about, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 31)Nor is there any reference to The Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12)  Nor words from his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5: 7)  Traditionalists talk about being “in the body of Christ,” but not about the love (Matthew 22: 34-40) and liberation (Luke 4: 16-18) Jesus proclaimed.

It appears that diversity poses an existential threat to Traditionalists. They cannot tolerate the advocates of the One Church Plan, who want to eliminate all the Book of Discipline’s discriminatory references to homosexuality, allow each annual conference to develop its own policies on the ordination of LGBTQ persons and the conducting of same-sex marriages, and permit ministers to move to churches or conferences that accommodate their beliefs. (See “United Methodists debate, lobby and worry in advance of LGBTQ decision,” My Mary Jacobs,religiousnews.com, Aug 2, 2018)

The One Church Plans calls for “the principle of contextualization,” which is also an anathema to Traditionalists in its embrace of diversity.  In its wisdom, The Church’s Judicial Council has determined that Methodist connectionalism “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographic, social and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage and human sexuality.”    (“Court: One Church Plan largely constitutional,” By Linda Bloom, umnews.org. Oct. 26, 2018)

United Methodist minister Rev. Jeremy Smith’s critique of the Traditionalist Plan addresses the holy heist being plotted.  Smith writes, “The Traditional Plan is less a Vision for United Methodism than it is a reaction to LGBTQ inclusion.  The rage-induced flailing,” he says, “combines Inquisition, coerced Loyalty Pledge to a discrimination regime, Enforcement, Purge, and an extra dose of Schism into a toxic proposal for United Methodism.”  Smith adds, “The purpose of the Traditionalist Plan isn’t to find a just solution to the tension over LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church,” but “to remove progressives and moderates and young evangelicals from leadership, gerrymandering the slim 55% Traditionalist majority into an unbreakable majority at every level of The United Methodist Church” (“Rage Against the UMC: The Traditionalist Plan,” United Methodist Insight, July 20, 2018)

Greatly lacking in the Traditional Plan (and in the Book of Discipline) is a scientific understanding of psychosexual development.  That understanding will shoot holes in the theology of free will and sin regarding LGBTQ persons, which theology is used to control and punish people. Psychological knowledge of “human sexuality” will immensely deepen and broaden The Church’s understanding of empathy and love – and “transformation.”  Love is love, whether born of biological affinity or free will.  A psychological understanding of personality and sexual development counters the paternalistic tendency to want to reconcile others to ourselves. Psychological insight enables self-understanding, which enables empathy, which enables practicing The Golden Rule of doing to others as you would want them to do to you, which enables “Open Hearts and Minds and Doors.”

***

Full disclosure: In 1973, I was forcible retired by the then Southern New England Conference of The United Methodist Church after performing the marriage of two male members of Boston’s Old West Church.  For an account of my forced retirement, see “A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret,” Counterpunch, July 19, 2018).

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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